"You don't sing to feel better," actress Jevetta Steele says at one point in her electrifying lead performance in Arizona Theater Company's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. "You sing because it's a way of understanding life."
August Wilson understands life. There's rich, musical proof in the hopeful, often anguished portraits he creates in his prize-winning plays. Typically, these portraits are of fictional people, artful archetypes designed to deliver the author's deeply moving history lessons. The woman at the center of this play is a real person: Ma Rainey, known in musical circles as "The Mother of the Blues."
With Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Wilson isn't offering a bluesy Behind the Music. His play transcends celebrity biography by etching its surface with dramatic backstories that make it all feel real and genuine, even though the story Wilson has spun is purely his own.
Unlike the rest of Wilson's 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, each installment of which chronicles the experiences of 20th-century African Americans, this story is set in Chicago, where Ma Rainey used to make records. It's 1927, and Ma and her band have gathered at Paramount studios, whose white owner treats Ma like a star but refers to each of her mostly long-in-the-tooth musicians as "boy." Things are tense between Ma and her manager, and she's angry to discover that the arrangement of one of the songs she'd planned to record has been rewritten by her arrogant young trumpeter, Levee, who plans to start his own band and become a star. Ma bellows about the ways in which the white man exploits her and others like her, while her band offer the same conclusion in slower, gentler stories from their own lives.
This is August Wilson, so while we're made witness to the turmoil of race relations and the exploitation of black people in the last century, we are mostly watching a story unfold among a group of troubled people who are also expert storytellers. With these stories, Wilson meanders, as ever, down a variety of poetic roads, touching on the significance of spirituality and the importance of kinship and memory, before arriving at the violent consequence of black oppression and abuse, which is — in this and so many of his plays — the playwright's greater message.
It's a message delivered with grace. Director Lou Bellamy has helped a stage full of terrific actors shine with tiny gestures and expressive silences. It's hardly possible to single out a "best" performance from among this stellar cast, but it would be irresponsible not to mention Jevetta Steele's transcendent take on a largely forgotten legend. She is stern with her bandmates, coarse with the white men who are profiting from her recordings. But each time she turns to speak to her troubled young nephew, Steele reveals the warm depths of Ma Rainey that allowed her to sing the blues so beautifully.